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License plate tracking: innovation or privacy invasion?

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Data can help our society be more productive and efficient.

It can also be an invasion of privacy.

A Wall Street Journal analysis estimates that the typical American doing everyday activities ends up having data being collected about him or her in 20 different ways (i.e. cell phone location, web searches and online purchases) -- and more than half of the tools being used in this surveillance did not exist 15 years ago.

Take, for example, the boom in license plate-tracking, which a 2010 study said was a staple in 37% of large U.S. police agencies, the Wall Street Journal reports. In Riverside County alone over the last two years, six million license plates were scanned.

Two million of them were unique plates, and the average plate was scanned three times during that period. But 1% were tracked hundreds, and in some cases thousands, of times.

Certainly, such information is useful. But, as you can guess, it is also controversial.

What the data is being used for

The Journal reports, "Law-enforcement officers say they use the technology to track down stolen cars, collect unpaid tickets and identify the vehicles of suspected criminals."

Private "repo" (repossession) companies are also using private databases of license plates, collected by companies such as Digital Recognition Network Inc. of Fort Worth, Texas, and MVTrac of Palatine, Ill.

For instance, Final Notice & Recovery uses the database in order to find cars wanted for repossession. The company has 10 cars outfitted with plate-recognition systems; they are driven 300 to 400 miles a day, scanning licenses in the Baltimore and Washington, D.C. area. When they see the plate of a car wanted for repossession, they call in a tow truck. Now, they nab about 15 a night, compared to six a night when they didn't have the technology.

Final Notice also has a historical record of the locations of vehicles in the region.  It "provides police free access to location information about vehicles in stolen-car or missing-person cases, among others," according to the Journal.

Digital Recognition Network is also combining the data with other valuable information. It boasts on its website that it can connect the data on where people drive their cars with household income and other valuable information "so companies can 'pinpoint consumers more effectively,'" the Journal reports.

Privacy concerns

But the downside of all this knowledge is its encroachment on privacy. A report by the International Association of Chiefs of Police stated that such technology might log "vehicles parked at addiction-counseling meetings, doctors' offices, health clinics, or even staging areas for political protests."

Another example of how the information could be used inappropriately is in an example of a police lieutenant in Washington, D.C. in 1998 trying to extort the owners of cars that were parked near a gay bar.

California state legislator Joe. Simitian attempted to introduce legislation to reduce the record of data by private contractors to the past 60 days and to require officers to obtain a warrant to access the data.  "Should a cop who thinks you're cute have access to your daily movements for the past 10 years without your knowledge or consent?" Sen. Simitian says. "I think the answer to that question should be 'no.'"

But his legislation failed after private companies and law-enforcement agencies opposed the bill because it would lower the revenue brought in from unpaid parking tickets and place an "overwhelming burden" on police departments.

So right now, it looks like we should all get ready for even more data on us to be logged: The price of one gigabyte of storage has dropped 91% in the last seven years -- from $18.95 then to $1.68 now. In a few years, it is projected to cost pennies.

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via: The Wall Street Journal

photo: The Eyes of New York/Flickr

— By on October 1, 2012, 8:00 PM PST

Laura Shin

Features Editor

Laura Shin has been published in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal and The Los Angeles Times, and is currently a contributor at Forbes. Previously, she worked at Newsweek, the New York Times, Wall Street Journal and LearnVest. She holds degrees from Stanford University and Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure